The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Seeing Beyond the Fences

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Every generation has had its prophecy analysts who claimed that current events are tied to an inevitable cataclysm. The History Channel is running “Apocalypse: The Puzzle of Revelation,” “Seven Signs of the Apocalypse,” and “Nostradamus and 2012” based on the Mayan doomsday prophecy. A series on the Antichrist has just finished. The Antichrist seems to get more attention than Jesus Christ, and this includes those who write from a Christian perspective.

Until the time of the Reformation, there were only a few agreed upon prophetic certainties, most notably the belief that Jesus would return a second time, as the Apostle’s Creed states, “to judge the quick and the dead.” There were certainly no developed prophetic systems as we know them today. The terms premillennial, amillennial, and postmillennial that are used today with familiarity are of fairly recent origin. Differing views of prophecy are recognized early in the history of the church, but they are rarely if ever given a specific name or made a point of doctrinal orthodoxy. The claim has been made that chiliasm (Greek for a “thousand years”), which defined someone who believed in an earthly millennium, was the prevailing view of the early church. A study of the available writings of that era will show that such dogmatic assertions rest on meager and disputed evidence.[1]

Over time, however, an additional prophetic consensus developed beyond the stated doctrine that Jesus Christ would return sometime in the future; it was the belief that the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church was the antichrist (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7), the man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3), and the harlot clothed in scarlet and purple (Rev. 17) all rolled into one religious-political bad guy. “For Martin Luther,” a representative of this view, “the Catholic Church was nothing more or less than Babylon—‘it would be no wonder,’ he wrote in 1520, ‘if God would rain fire and brimstone from heaven and sink Rome into the abyss, as He did Sodom and Gomorrah of old’—and the pope the Antichrist. ‘If he is not,’ Luther exclaimed, ‘then somebody tell me who is!’”[2] Hundreds of years of Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric could fill a small library.

For centuries the papacy was the unanimous antichrist candidate.[3] The papal system was identified as “both the ‘man of sin’ and the Babylonian whore of which Scripture speaks (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 19). In the conviction of the sixteenth-century Protestants, Rome was the great anti-Christ, and so firmly did this belief become established that it was not until the nineteenth century that it was seriously questioned by evangelicals.”[4]

Like so many of today’s prophetic claims of “certainty” of who the antichrist is, the Bible in the sixteenth century was being read and interpreted through the lens of current events. When a political leader exerts his authority, there are prophecy writers today who are quick to identify him as the antichrist or the prelude to the antichrist. The Reformation grew out of doctrinal controversies and unbiblical practices of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s not surprising that those who had been persecuted for questioning the church in these areas to find justification for their judgments against Rome in the pages of Scripture. The belief that the Roman Catholic Church was the antichrist was so strong and certain that it was written into their confessional statements. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) included the following in Chapter 25 section 6:

There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.[5]

The antichrist designation was removed in 1789 in the American edition. The revised article reads, “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.” There remain groups today that still identify the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church as the antichrist,[6] but most evangelicals no longer attribute the antichrist moniker to the papacy even though they still disagree with many of the church’s doctrinal claims and practices.

While the Antichrist theme continued to thrive as the Reformation advanced across Europe and settled hard in England in the seventeenth century,[7] no systematic and comprehensive approach to Bible prophecy had been developed that was embraced by the majority Christian population. There were no popular prophecy spokesmen or publishing houses as we know them today to reach the masses with a prophetic course of study. The only thing that came close are the notes found in the Geneva Bible,[8] first published in 1560 and  developed by English refugees in Geneva, Switzerland, who fled there during the reign of Queen Mary I (1516–1558). “Bloody Mary,” as she was known, persecuted Protestants and restored England to Roman Catholicism after the death of Edward VI. “When Mary came to the throne in 1553, Edward’s Reformation policy was reversed. Some of those responsible for making translations (e.g., John Rogers; Thomas Cranmer) were burned at the stake; others sought refuge on the [European] continent (e.g., [Miles] Coverdale), along with shiploads of Protestant refugees from England.”[9] From 1560 to 1644 at least 144 editions of the Bible were published.

The Geneva Bible has been described as the “first study Bible” because of the thousands of notes included with the biblical text. It was the Geneva Bible that almost everybody in the English-speaking world read. Even the men working on the translation that would come to be known as the King James Version (1611) “continued to quote from the Geneva version” because it was “the one familiar to the congregations they addressed.”[10] David Daniell notes that “many of the almost one thousand biblical references in Shakespeare come from the Geneva text.”[11] The Geneva Bible was truly a “fee market” translation. There was no official church or civil authorization that declared that it should be the Bible for the people. “The people loved it for itself and its history.”[12] The elucidation of the text that came from the marginal notes added to the readability of Scripture for families.

To repeat, it’s important to keep in mind that during this period of persecution, the Reformers did not outline a prophetic system that predicted the near end of the world. “In contrast to Luther, John Calvin believed that the kingdom would ‘have a yet greater triumph in history prior to the consummation [the Second Coming],’”[13] so much so that “the kingdom of God . . . [will] be extended to the utmost boundaries of the earth . . . so as to occupy the whole world from one end to the other.”[14] It was Calvin’s shared optimistic eschatology that found its way into the notes of the Geneva Bible. To cite just one of scores of examples, the note on Zechariah 9:11 in the Geneva Bible reads, “God showeth that he will deliver his Church out of all dangers, seem they ever so great.” This is no reference to the rapture of the Church but only the promised claim that God will sustain and maintain His Church even when persecuted (2 Tim. 3:10–12), and that includes Christians being burned at the stake for attempting to do something as logical as translate the Bible into English.

The English Protestant scholars who produced the Geneva Bible . . . were fully conscious of the role which they hoped it would play in the religious wars of the truth. In an age which bears witness to “so horrible backsliding and falling away from Christ to Antichrist, from light to darkness, from the living God to dumb and dead idols,” and in a time of “so cruel murder of God’s saints” under Queen Mary, the translators explained that God’s divine providence still continues to work in time and history “with most evident signs and tokens of God’s especial love and favor” towards his saints. Now, the surest way to be mindful of “these great mercies” is “attained by the knowledge and practicing of the word of God.”[15]

The Genevan translation and the ever-present notes were designed to explain “the course and progress of the church within time and history”[16] and the ongoing work of reformation that was needed in light of the religious and political struggles that they still faced. “Without this word,” the “Epistle” to the Geneva Bible states, “we cannot discern between justice, and injury, protection and oppression, wisdom and foolishness, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil. Therefore the Lord, who is the chief governor of his Church, wills that nothing be attempted before we have inquired thereof at his mouth.” The editors and translators believed that the Geneva Bible would have a role “to play in advancing the Reformation in England.”[17] Even though the church was only coming out of its centuries-long corruption and the political landscape was hardly fertile, the Reformers could see beyond these obstacles because of the hope they saw in the gospel and the outworking of a Christian worldview in the world. We would do well to imitate their optimism.


[1] Gary DeMar and Francis X. Gumerlock, The Early Church and the End of the World (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2006).
[2] Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 19.
[3] Samuel J. Cassels, Christ and Antichrist or Jesus of Nazareth Proved to be the Messiah and the Papacy Proved to be the Antichrist (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1846).
[4] Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 41.
See Dave Hunt,  A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1994) and
[7] Christopher Hill, Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).
For accessible histories of the Geneva Bible, see Patricia Serak, “The Geneva Bible: An Historical Report”: and William H. Noah and David L. Brown, “Introduction to the Geneva Bible”:
Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 300.
Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 215, 254.
David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 354.
[12] The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). The quotation is from John Eadie, The English Bible: An External and Critical History of the Various English Translations, 2 vols. (London: MacMillan & Co., 1876), 2:51–52, as cited in Lloyd E. Berry’s “Introduction” to the Geneva Bible, 22. Quoted in Avihu Zakai, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 38.
Gary DeMar and Peter J. Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity: A Biblical Response to Dave Hunt’s Theology (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1988), 236, 237.
Quoted in Greg L. Bahnsen “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism” in Victory in Jesus: The Bright Hope of Postmillennialism, ed. Robert R. Booth (Texarkana, AR: Covenant Media Press, 1999), 80.
[15] Zakai, Exile and Kingdom, 38–39.
Zakai, Exile and Kingdom, 39.
[17] Zakai, Exile and Kingdom, 41.

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